There’s something about the indigo unknown of a dark winter night. Because, for John and I, it turned a compliment into a conversation bordering on metaphysics.
We were driving home on Thursday evening, when the veil of clouds had turned the sky above into a huge, nebulous tunnel dyed in india ink. And I just happened to turn to John, over a broadcast of Hanukkah songs, to say what I often say to him. “You’re outstanding.”
“But why am I outstanding?” he asked. Which is not unusual. He’s asked me many times before, to elucidate every aspect of what makes him so outstanding. And I always oblige with a parade of compliments, that range from the physical (“Handsome”) to the more abstract (“Talented”). But I’d just told him why the other day, marching out the very same compliments. So I didn’t understand why he needed to hear all over again.
John looked down at the floor. “Sorry, I have trouble remembering.” And then as we both looked into the earthly cosmos stretched out before us, a more nebulous admission arose. “I really don’t have a clear idea of who I am.”
It felt like our conversation suddenly veered off course, onto a highway we didn’t even realize was there. “You don’t?” This was the guy who once declared himself a “five-four” youth, who loved telling everyone his name meant “fine steed,” and who had a strong vision for his current graduate work, and what he hoped to do in the future. How could he not know who he was?
Before I knew it, we plunged into the depths of our past, and cultures, searching for those reasons why. “So when you think of yourself, what do you think of?” I pressed him. The answer? His family.
For John, his identity was his family — from his living relatives to the ancestors pictured in the foyer of his family home, who he worshiped every year during Chinese New Year and the Tomb-Sweeping Festival. He was never socialized to think about who he was, as an individual — the way I always had, as a child. We thought about the Confucian hierarchy, where elders and ancestors held importance over all, overshadowing the idea of individual identity. We wondered about Zen Buddhism, which started in China and preached the idea of letting go of ego.
And while it’s hard to say with certainty what influenced John’s upbringing when it comes to knowing the self, I do know one thing — he’s beginning to understand, and, someday, will find a way out of the indigo unknown of just who he is.
Have you ever struggled with understanding who you are?